Will state embrace innovation school zones?

After polarizing charter showdown, advocates hope district plan gains broader backing

THE HIGHLY CHARGED DEBATE over charter schools last fall ended with a resounding statewide vote against significant expansion of the public, but independently operated, schools. What the vote did not answer is what else might be done to improve education for those who have most often sought seats at charter schools – students stuck in low-performing district schools.

Legislation filed by the House chairman of the Legislature’s education committee aims to address that by allowing struggling schools to form clusters that operate independently of the district system and enjoy much of the flexibility that has been a hallmark of high-performing charter schools.

Rep. Alice Peisch says Innovation Partnership Zones have the potential to help close the state’s yawning achievement gap without the divisive battle lines that pitted advocates of charter schools and district schools against each other.

“I’m hoping it will appeal to a broader group than the charter expansion question did,” says Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat.

Under the legislation, innovation zones would enjoy broad latitude over curriculum, the length and structure of the school day, and hiring decisions. They would still be staffed by unionized district teachers and they would enroll all the same children who attended the school before the changeover.

The zones, which could be initiated either by local education officials or by the state education commissioner, would be overseen by an independent board that would include local representatives, but not be under the control of the district school committee and superintendent.

The bill got a shout-out from Gov. Charlie Baker last month in his State of the Commonwealth address. “These zones create more flexibility in schools and allow educators to make the changes necessary to provide a better learning environment for our kids,” he said. Baker said he would work with Peisch and Sen. Eric Lesser, the Senate sponsor of the legislation, to pass the measure.

The locally initiated zones would have to include at least one school that falls in the bottom 20 percent performing schools statewide, while zones initiated by the state education commissioner would have to include at least one school ranked even lower, a chronically underperforming school, a designation under current state law that means that the school could be subject to state takeover.

The model for the legislation is a zone of nine middle schools launched in the fall of 2015 in Springfield. The Springfield Empowerment Zone, a local-state partnership, emerged as an alternative to full state takeover of several chronically underperforming schools, the step that was being considered by the state education department under a 2010 law aimed at bolstering struggling schools.

Instead, the state Department of elementary and Secondary Education  allowed three Springfield middle schools that were facing likely state takeover to join with several others that were not in imminent danger of takeover but were one step away from that status and operate under an independent board.

The empowerment zone’s seven-member board includes four members appointed by state education commissioner Mitchell Chester and three local representatives, Springfield’s mayor, the district superintendent, and the vice chairman of the district school committee. Chris Gabrieli, the founder of the Boston-based nonprofit Empower Schools, was tapped to serve as the board chairman.

The Springfield initiative includes 4,400 middle school students and will add 1,500 more students next year with the addition of a low-performing high school to the zone.

Tim Collins, the president of the Springfield teachers union, says the threat of a full state takeover made the empowerment zone seem like the lesser evil at the time. “We didn’t have much of a choice,” he says of the union vote to approve the zone plan.

But Collins says the autonomy given to the schools in the zone and the development of teacher leadership teams with real input have made good on the call for greater teacher voice in school decision-making that he has sounded for decades.

“It is an attempt to put the decision-making in the hands of the people doing the work,” says Collins. “I’ve been at this for 43 years. They have always made educators the objects of school reform, and it won’t be until educators are the architects of change that we will close the opportunity gap.”

Science teacher Stephen Stroud, an eight-year veteran of the Springfield system who teaches at Duggan Middle School, says in the year-and-a-half in which his school has been part of the empowerment zone, he has seen a dramatic shift toward having teachers be architects, not objects, of reform.

The school has added an hour to its day, and the science department faculty reviewed offerings from various science curriculum companies and decided which one they thought was best without having to follow the district’s recommendation.

“I’m not going to say that the model would work no matter who did it,” says Stroud, “but I think the model really gives the opportunity for someone with the leadership and vision to be creative.”

It’s too early for any clear indication of whether student achievement is rising under the Springfield zone. MCAS results from the first year showed mixed results on measures of student achievement growth.
But supporters of the bill to allow broader use of the zones say the model it embraces of school-level autonomy has proven itself.

“It’s fairly clear that successful schools all have autonomy and flexibility,” says Peisch. “That alone won’t improve things. You need to have good people doing the work. But without those tools I think it’s very hard for those who are committed to improvement to actually be successful.”

Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat whose district includes about half of Springfield, sees the innovation zone legislation as a way to “move the needle in education beyond the charter debate.”

Lesser was against November’s ballot question to expand charter schools because of worries about charter schools diverting money from districts, and backers of the zone model are hopeful that his sponsorship of the bill is a sign that the reform proposal will draw support from lawmakers on both sides of that charged issue.

“I think we need to move beyond the binary, very polarizing debate” on charter schools, Lesser says. He says charter school advocates “make good points about flexibility and ability to implement new curriculum and management practices,” while district supporters were “absolutely right that charters take resources” from district schools.  Calling the idea of charter-like autonomy to district schools a reasonable middle ground, Lesser says of the zone model, “I think this is a good Goldilocks option.”

The chances of the bill being seen as reasonable middle ground in the education debate may rest largely with the Senate, where opposition in recent years to charter school expansion killed any such legislative efforts and helped set the stage for last year’s ballot showdown.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who has served as Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Education, declined to comment on the bill — the only K-12 education policy issue raised by Baker in his State of the Commonwealth address — with her office saying she has not yet had time to study it.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is taking a dim view of the Innovation Partnership Zone legislation. “Who is being empowered except the commissioner in this plan?” asks Barbara Madeloni, the MTA president. “There’s no partnership in this, there’s no innovation if it’s entirely about test scores.”

If the teachers union thinks the bill goes too far in removing local control, Jim Stergios of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute worries that the zones won’t have the sort of unfettered autonomy to make the gains seen in charter schools.  “It strikes me as a nice thing to do, but it’s kind of refried beans,” he says. “We’ve seen this movie before.” Stergios pointed to other district-based reforms, such pilot schools and in-district charter schools, which have delivered underwhelming results.

The MTA and other education advocates have said the focus now should be on increasing funding for schools. They point to a 2015 report that concluded that the state is shortchanging the K-12 education funding formula by at least $1 billion.

“We are constitutionally required to adequately fund our district schools, and we are failing at that,” says Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville.

The state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act brought billions of dollars in new education aid to schools, much of it to poorer communities, along with new high standards and accountability for improving student outcomes in low-performing districts. The combination of new funding and strict accountability was often termed the education “grand bargain.”

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

With funding issues again coming front and center, and with recognition that too many students continue to lag behind, perhaps there will be room for a new grand bargain that includes new funding and reforms such as the zone proposal for district schools.

“I’m optimistic because the Legislature and this governor have worked together effectively on lots of issues,” says Gabrieli, a leading voice behind the zone legislation. “That clearly was not the case on the major education issues last year, but it’s a new year and there are lots of students who need great schools.”